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Glass-House Chats: Careful Construction

Posted on 18 December 2023

Written by:

Sophia de Sousa

Our third Chat of this season, Careful Construction, brought together a diverse group of participants to look at construction through the lens of care. With our participants representing various fields, including housing and development, self-build, consultancy, education and learning, we came at the question from a number of angles and viewpoints, with a shared interest in the notion of care both for people and our planet. 

Key Themes

Our conversation kicked off with the statistic from one of our participants that 30% of building materials go straight to waste, due largely to the haste to get the job done as quickly as possible. “Time is money”, so they say. This kick-started a really interesting discussion about not only the materiality of construction, but also the ethics of care in the construction industry within its systems and processes. 

We talked about the power of reusing materials, of starting not with clearing a site, but with doing an inventory of what is already there. We went on to talk about how to tackle siloed working, and the importance of stitching together the different elements, people and organisations involved. We considered the parity of esteem we should give to the different roles within the design, development and construction industry, valuing each regardless of the academic or apprenticeship route they may have taken to get there, as well as those who will inhabit the place in the future.   

Reduce waste

One of the participants involved in a self build project spoke about being intentional in her use and reuse of materials. She told us about picking up and washing dozens of labourers’ gloves that had been used and cast aside, of cleaning sample paint patches off bricks, of reshaping and using broken breeze blocks and other things to reduce waste. She commented that her position of intent did not come without its cost, largely time, and that while she understood that it was quicker to cast used or broken things aside and get on with the job, what is the cost to the planet created by the desire to save time and money?

We touched on the legal frameworks that are in place to ensure that companies protect their shareholders, profits and employees through their ‘duty of care’. Company directors and executives are legally bound to protect the interests of their investors. They are also duty bound to support and protect their employees. In the construction industry, in which many are doing challenging, physically arduous and sometimes dangerous work, that notion of care and nurture for those employed in the sector is vital. 

What if the notion of duty of care as a legal framework also extended to our planet?  

We also talked about the waste that comes not only from new builds, but can also come from retrofit projects and from families renovating their homes, whether building extensions, replacing bathroom suites, household goods etc, and the tips of waste outside people’s homes. Participants shared initiatives like the Renew Hub in Manchester, which is helping people and organisations find a home for things that they no longer need, but that could help others while helping our planet.   

Building Bridges

This is not the first time that the challenge of people working in silos has been raised at one of our Chats, but it was striking when we started to pick this apart in more detail, how many layers deep these disconnects go in construction, and how they have been institutionalised through our education systems. As well as the clear barriers across disciplines in the built environment, and across departments within local government, there are also specialisms in the associated trades that do not always work well together or hold each other in high regard. We commented on how strange this was, when all are working to the same end of making buildings and spaces inhabitable and usable by people, and all are so reliant on the cooperation of the others.

There is a need to stitch these pieces together more, and those in our group argued that this stitching is perhaps more important than the individual pieces themselves.  

We talked about qualifications and specialisms perpetuating the silos, and the fact that a very high proportion of planners have never studied design, and vice versa. There are increasingly steps being taken by higher education to facilitate better crossover, with interdepartmental activities and opportunities to explore other specialisms but there is still a lot to be done in this space. Newcastle University’s BA in Architecture and Urban Planning was given as an example of one such interdisciplinary degree course.    

Valuing Everyone

This led us onto the notion of parity of esteem, or in other words, valuing and respecting two things or people equally. Why is it that some built environment professions are valued differently to others? Why are the academic pathways and university qualifications still often seen, and indeed promoted in schools, as the pathway for everyone to aspire to? We also talked about achieving a greater balance between those who shape and those who use places and spaces. How can we shift culture to value everyone equally as collaborators and contributors?   

We noted that some construction companies are doing fantastic work in terms of social value and impact, offering pathways into employment through a range of apprenticeships and social value schemes, implementing policies around hiring locally, and generally working to support and invest in creating social value in the areas in which they are building. 

Those doing this are effectively nurturing young talent and creating impact in the neighbourhood where they are building. One participant wondered what difference this was making to greater diversity and gender equality in the sector. Another wondered whether using the term make, rather than build might help us think differently about who could get involved, and how they could work more collaboratively to shape places with a lens of care. 

Might this notion of mutual respect for our built and natural environment, and for all of us who inhabit it, (people and critters alike), help us develop a shared sense of the ethics of care?   

Wrapping up

Our Careful Construction Chat covered a lot of ground in the space of an hour. What was perhaps surprising was that it was quite a hopeful conversation, with the acknowledgement that while there is still a great deal to do in this space, there are examples of people and organisations trying to change things, working to systemically bring the ethics of care to the fore for the benefit of people and our planet. This is not just about duty of care, but about the power of responsibility, empathy and generosity in construction.